A Place in Time: Some Chapters of a Telling Story
When Elton and Mary Penn ran away and got married one night in the October of 1938, he was eighteen and she seventeen. After that, she was to her parents as if she were dead or never born. They were never her parents nor she their daughter ever again. Perhaps the young couple should not have been surprised at this, for they had been warned. Mary had been forbidden to see Elton, who was, her parents said, “nothing.” He was a half-orphan boy, educated no further than the eighth grade, who had not an acre or hardly a penny to call his own.
In the year Elton was nine, which was the first year of the 1930s Depression, his father had died. His mother married again—too soon, according to local opinion—and Elton hated his stepfather. When he was fourteen he left home, and since then, share-cropping and working by the day, he had made his own living. By the time he was eighteen he owned a team of horses, a cow, and a few tools. These possessions made him a little more than the nothing his in-laws said he was, but not by much. Not by enough certainly to make him a fit match for a daughter of the Mountjoys, a family of aristocratic pretensions, with a good farm on the fat upland near Smallwood.
And so Mary and Elton began their life together as outcasts, their very being recognized only by themselves. In hasty preparation for their marriage, Elton had rented from his mother the sideling, rundown little farm she owned on Cotman Ridge, near Port William. Elton and Mary moved there and set up housekeeping, making do with the elderly stoves and the few sticks of furniture that had been abandoned in the house, to which they added the bare necessities they could afford. “Lord,” Mary once said to Andy Catlett when she was old, “it looked like it took us just forever to accumulate a little kitchen cabinet and a few things to put in it.”
The farm offered them no advantages, except that it divided them effectively from Smallwood and the Mountjoys. Smallwood was not far away in miles, but it was out of the orbit of Port William. On the place they had come to there was not a sound building, including the old house itself. Its pastures grew more briars and locust sprouts than grass. The small ridgetop patches that could be cropped had been misused and eroded. It was a place from which too many owners or users had demanded too much for too many years. To Elton and Mary it offered merely a foothold, a chance to survive.
Their only good fortune was that the farm lay in a neighborhood of five households that clustered together, with their modest acreages, out there on Cotman Ridge. Elton and Mary’s neighbors Braymer and Josie Hardy, Tom Hardy and his Josie, Walter and Thelma Cotman, Jonah and Daisy Hample, and Uncle Isham and Aunt Frances Quail. The Hardy brothers’ wives, the two Josies, were known for convenience as “Josie-Braymer” and “Josie-Tom.” Josie-Tom was Walter Cotman’s sister. Thelma Cotman and Daisy Hample were daughters of Uncle Isham and Aunt Frances. The Tom Hardys were childless. Braymer and Josie-Braymer had a daughter and two sons. The Cotmans had one daughter. The Hamples were parents already of “a flock” of six, all of them, like their father, so nearsighted “they couldn’t see all the way to the ground,” and all of them, like their father, born mechanics who “could fix anything by feel for want of sight.”
This was an old community. Its middle generation all had grown up together, had known one another “forever,” and were closely bound together by marriage, kinship, friendship, history, and memory. Almost everything they did, all the long, hard jobs of farm and household, they did together. Sometimes the women worked together apart from the men and the men apart from the women. Sometimes the men and women, and the children too, all worked together. They had, among them, the expectable diversity of knacks and talents. Everybody had always known what everybody else was good at. And so they worked together familiarly, in harmony, and always with a dependable margin, a sort of overflow, of pleasure, for as they worked they talked and their talk pleased them. They remembered and relished everything that had ever happened that was funny. They told and retold old stories along with new ones. They talked and teased and laughed and sometimes sang.
And so at the time when Elton and Mary Penn most desperately needed a community, they had the good fortune to land right in the midst, in the very embrace, of one that might as well have been expecting them.
The women opened their hearts and their arms to Mary. They befriended her, mothered her, gave her freely their companionship. By instruction and example they taught her the arts of farm housewifery, of which they knew, it seemed to Mary, everything. “Everything I know,” she would say later, “I learned from those women.”
Elton, who still had much to learn, who would continue his eager learning all his life, was already a confirmed farmer, an excellent teamster, and a good hand at anything he tried. The men were glad to include him in all the work they did together, telling him where they would be and when to come. When he needed help, they came to him. The men were to Elton as the women were to Mary. They became his teachers and his friends. And beyond all that they told him, Elton pondered their ways of working, their ways of talking and thinking, their ways even of wearing their clothes. Of them all, Walter Cotman was the best farmer and had the clearest mind, was most fastidious in everything he did or said, was least tolerant of poor work and hardest to please. Elton put himself to school to Walter, watching and questioning him and remembering everything, and Walter did not hesitate to correct him and set him straight.
From every one of them Elton learned something he needed to know. Braymer was the one most likely to know the market value of something and how to get it cheaper. When Elton’s old car or some implement needed fixing and he couldn’t fix it himself, he took it to Jonah Hample, and then stayed to watch and learn while Jonah figured out what was wrong and put it right. Uncle Isham Quail was a rememberer who had saved up in his mind everything he had seen and experienced and everything he had heard. In his latter years he seemed to live in all the times of that small place back to the original wilderness. Elton learned how to start Uncle Isham’s flow of talk, and then he would listen and remember.
The only one of the men whose example Elton finally had no use for was Tom Hardy. By some early learning or by nature, Tom Hardy was a satisfied man, content to be himself, to be where he was, and to have what he had, accepting of every day as it came and went, never asking or arguing for a better. But Elton, probably by nature and certainly by his circumstances, was not a satisfied man, not then and not ever.
Within the limits imposed by Elton’s mother’s used-up farm, which afforded little scope for their talents and desires, Elton and Mary could not have prospered during their seven years on Cotman Ridge. They had come there hoping merely to survive. But with the help of their neighbors, by their own unstinting work and determination, by taking every opportunity to rent more land or to work for pay, they improved significantly upon survival. They grew strong individually and together.
They grew strong as a couple despite their differences of temperament, and despite the burden imposed upon their marriage by Mary’s parents’ rejection. The Mountjoys’ legacy to Elton was his own retaliatory anger and defiance, preserved all his life by the fear, especially when he was at odds with Mary, that they had been right: that he was, or was in danger of becoming, nothing. To Mary their legacy, in addition to the wound they had given Elton which she spent all their life together trying to heal, was the wound to herself, assuaged somewhat by the motherly women of Cotman Ridge, assuaged much more by the Christian faith that shone quietly and steadily in her to the end of her days.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that in their years on Cotman Ridge, Elton and Mary grew up. They became responsible and competent in many things. And so when Wheeler Catlett came looking for them in 1944, they were ready.
Wheeler Catlett was Old Jack Beechum’s lawyer, his kinsman by marriage, and his friend. He had been raised as Old Jack’s neighbor, for the Beechum and the Catlett places lay on opposite sides of the Bird’s Branch Road north of Port William. Wheeler knew Old Jack and his place probably as well as he knew anybody or any place. In the spring of 1944 Wheeler was in the midst of a long and so far unsuccessful negotiation with Old Jack, not as his lawyer primarily, but as his friend and moreover as a family spokesman. This negotiation had begun with an understanding between Wheeler and Mat Feltner, Wheeler’s father-in-law and Old Jack’s nephew, that Old Jack, eighty-four years old and long-widowed, was too old to continue living alone in his big empty house. He needed to move into the old hotel in Port William where he would be properly fed and looked after by Mrs. Hendrick, who had turned her relict property into a sort of old folks’ home.
So far, Old Jack had resisted. In fact he had triumphed. When Wheeler in exasperation had played what he had withheld as his trump card—“We don’t want you to die out here by yourself”—Old Jack, returning point-blank the younger man’s stare, said, “I can do it by myself.” He went so far as to memorialize his triumph with a snort. Wheeler replied only with a snort of his own, partly in amusement at the perfection of his defeat.
From the time of his middle years, and according to his principles, Old Jack had been doing his work mainly by himself, when necessary swapping work with his neighbors. As he did not wish to be bossed, he did not wish to boss. He had subscribed to a further principle common enough in the Port William community: “I’d not ask another man to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.”
But age and wear and finally arthritis—“that Arthur, the meanest one of the Ritis brothers”—had forbidden him to do himself the work that needed to be done. There followed a procession of tenants or hired hands, who lived on nearby farms or else moved with their families into a fixed-up two-room log cabin that had stood below the barns since sometime during slavery, and whom Old Jack fired always a little sooner than they could be replaced. It began to seem to Wheeler and Mat that they were spending half their time looking for yet another “somebody who might do.” What they had to “do” was measure up to Old Jack’s standards of work, and one after another they failed.
“You can hire a fellow’s body,” Old Jack said, “but you can’t hire his mind. The mind, if he has got one, has to come along free. Can’t you find me somebody can think?”
Well, at last Wheeler could, and he did. He found Elton and Mary Penn who, according to available evidence, could think. They could think and do, both at the same time. “They’ll do,” Braymer Hardy told Wheeler. “They’ll satisfy. They’re a good pair of young people. You can depend on ’em.”
And so Wheeler had understood that they were not going to come as hired hands. He didn’t even ask. If they were to come, they would come as tenants, farming the place as full partners, half and half, expenses to be fairly divided. And so Wheeler asked them, and they agreed, provided that Wheeler could get Old Jack to accept them and their terms.
Wheeler laid the proposition before Old Jack that night. It was getting well into February by then. If the thing was going to be done, it had to be done soon.
They talked in Old Jack’s kitchen by the light of an oil lamp with a smoked chimney, sitting in chairs drawn away from the table. Old Jack had been through the motions, as he said, of what he called his supper. Now he sat and merely looked at Wheeler while Wheeler talked. His look did not make it easy for Wheeler to talk, for there was much of doubt and resistance in it. But Wheeler was confident he knew what he was talking about, and he made his case. “This is a good boy,” he said, “and he’s married to a good girl. They’re the right kind. They’ll do.”
Old Jack reached out with the end of his walking cane and touched Wheeler’s leg. “How do you know that?”
“I’ve looked and I’ve seen,” Wheeler said, allowing himself some emphasis. “Don’t you worry about that. And I’ve got Braymer Hardy’s word.”
Old Jack said, knowing better, “Braymer Hardy don’t know brush from big wood.”
“Braymer don’t miss much,” Wheeler said. “He’s got sense, and he’s honest.”
There was a little while then when nobody said anything. Old Jack’s eyes quit looking at Wheeler while he turned his mind’s eye upon his thoughts. Finally he looked outward again at Wheeler. “Tell ’em to come on.”
And then Wheeler, who had a new trump card, had to play it. “Well, if they come, they’re not going to live here in two rooms. They’re going to need your house.”
Old Jack opened his mouth, and then he shut it again and looked down. To have what he wanted for his place, he would have to leave it. Wheeler, instead of snorting in commendation of his own triumph, had to look away.
When Old Jack looked up again, the burden of defeat and acceptance was upon him, but again he looked straight at Wheeler. “All right,” he said. “Let ’em come on.”
In the March of that year of 1945, Elton and Mary Penn moved into the house on the Beechum place, after Old Jack had moved —it was the first and last move of his life—to Port William and the hotel’s society of elderly widows.
The Beechum house, a far better house than the one on Cotman Ridge, bore the marks of long inhabitance by an old widower, but Wheeler had attached to it his promise that it would receive the improvements necessary to make it, by the standards of that time, “livable.” The outbuildings and the cellar were good. The garden plot was larger and richer than the one they’d had. The house—even after Old Jack’s daughter had come out from Louisville and carried away all the best dishes, silverware, and furniture—still contained furnishings enough, and more than enough, which made Mary happy.
She had come not far in miles from the Josies and the other neighborly wives of Cotman Ridge, but the few miles that now separated them made a difference. They were no longer within an easy walk of one another. There was no more “happening by.” Now when they visited it had to be by automobile, and only on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes they would be together in passing on Saturday night in Port William. The women of Cotman Ridge came over one day and helped Mary to make curtains and thus contributed to her “new start,” but the easy daily bonds of neighborhood were broken.
Now Mary had for womanly company and comfort mainly Dorie Catlett, Wheeler’s mother, who lived across the road. Dorie was of the generation of Aunt Frances Quail—old, old, as she seemed to Mary—but she was, in her abrupt and outspoken way, a kind companion and sometimes truly a comfort to Mary, whom she saw rightly as not only young but hurt and therefore needy. After she had finished her after-dinner housework, and if the weather was good, Mary would often take the shortcut across the fields to the Catlett place, to spend the rest of the afternoon sitting and talking on the front porch with Dorie. Dorie made her welcome, told her things of use or of interest, loaned her books from her own limited supply, and listened to her as Mary told, in bits and pieces, her story. When Dorie had gathered in from Mary, and from Wheeler, the story of the Penns’ marriage and its hard beginning, she pronounced her judgment upon the Mountjoys. She turned down the corners of her mouth and said with perfect finality: “Hmh!”
For Elton the old place, new to him, was exactly the chance he had been needing, his chance to prove himself, to exert his mind and his strength. At last, as he said, he could stretch his arms out full length and turn all the way around. In coming to the Beechum place, moreover, he came within the friendship and influence of Wheeler Catlett and of Wheeler’s father Marce, Old Jack’s contemporary and friend, and of Old Jack himself. The influence of those men would remain with Elton, a circumstance of his life that was essential and dear, long beyond the deaths of Marce and Old Jack and until Elton’s own death.
The neighborhood of the two families soon included Wheeler’s two boys, Andy and Henry. For Andy Catlett the story of Elton and Mary Penn, from the time he was included in it, became one of the shaping forces of his life. Their example, reduced to instruction, told him this: Grow up. Learn to be a good hand. Learn to be a good farmer. Marry for love. Get a place, a farm, of your own. Shape your life to the needs of your place. So far as you can, without hurting it, shape your place to your needs. Live from it and for it. Always try to make it better.
But to reduce that formative example to instruction is to misrepresent it, for instruction cannot even suggest the passion and the beauty, the difficult requirement and the hardship, of the example. What Andy took from the Penns was not instruction so much as a series of memories, visions, that ruled over his young life and still imposed their attraction and demand upon him when he was old: visions of Elton and Mary delighted with the first ripe tomato from their garden; of Elton plowing in the spring, his mind alight with the thought of the made crop; of Mary and Elton butchering their meat hogs, and then of the cured hams, shoulders, bacons, jowls, and the sacks of sausage hanging in their smokehouse; of Elton’s best days lived from dark to dark in the excitement of going ahead, leaving a good difference behind him.
Andy’s first sight of Elton was from a distance, and it caused a memorable, if temporary, twinge to his conscience. On that early summer day in 1945, Andy’s conscience was on one of its frequent absences from the neighborhood. He was riding Beauty the pony, and in his left hand he was carrying a bow and an arrow. His grandpa Catlett had sent him to bring in the two Jersey cows for the evening milking, and on that practical level he was functioning probably as well as he needed to. But his mind, which he had stuffed with books and comic books about cowboys and Indians in the Wild West, had more than one level. On a level or two above the practical, he was an Indian hunting buffalo on the broad prairie.
And so when he found the cows resting in the shade of a strawstack, he rode up to them, dropped the bridle rein, and shot the nearest cow with his arrow. The arrow had been cut from his grandma’s mock orange, and it was about as harmless against cowhide as it would have been against steel. It was nevertheless a good shot, the arrow bouncing off the cow’s ribs at a point, Andy imagined, very near her heart. But then, allowing him only a second or two for satisfaction, his conscience came flying back to warn him that he might have been seen.
He was, after all, in one of the front fields and on a rise of the ground in plain sight of the road. He saw nobody, no vehicle, on the road. But beyond the road, on the crest of the ridge exactly opposite, he saw a man who had started digging a posthole, but who now was standing with his right hand at rest on the handle of his spade, and he was watching Andy.
Since it was nobody he was kin to, nobody he even knew, though pride forbade him to dismount to retrieve his arrow, Andy untwinged his conscience and drove the cows up to the barn.
Andy—who had just got free of school and who intended to stay with his grandma and grandpa, if he could, until his parents and the school teachers forgot about him—already knew the name of the man who had been watching him. He was Elton Penn, of whom he had heard his grandpa say, “Ay God, he’s the right kind, and he’s got a good woman.” Elton and his wife were the new people on the Beechum place.
New people being by far the most interesting items within reach, Andy got on the pony the first thing after breakfast the next morning and went over to see them for himself. At the road, he turned down the hill and then, halfway to the bottom, he turned into the graveled lane that made a long curve along a rock fence covered with moss and lichens and lined with trees. When he came in sight of the house and the yard and the fields adjoining, the tobacco patch whose neat rows came almost to the yard fence, Andy stopped the pony and looked at everything.
The Beechum place was a good one, as Andy’s father had pointed out to him often enough and as Andy by then could see for himself. Old Jack had taken good care of it for a long time. It was a comfort to look at, and this was because the layout of its buildings and fields, even the woods along its steeper slopes and the trees in its fencerows, all fitted rightly together.
At first Andy saw nothing he was looking for. He heard a hen cackling in the henhouse, but he saw nothing stirring. The stillness of the heat of the day had come early, and the place was in a sort of trance. And then, beyond the lilac bush in the yard, he saw a man in a straw hat at work with a hoe in the tobacco patch. The man was young, tall, and slender. He moved with a certain grace, his posture and attitude entirely conformed to the motions of his work.
Andy rode around to a gate and through it to the headland along the yard fence where the rows ended. At the end of the row in which the man was working he stopped the pony again, and again he sat and watched.
If the man was aware of Andy he made no sign. He had not looked up or altered at all the rhythm of his work. He was, as Andy felt then, as later he would articulately know, a master workman, and of no tool was he more a master than the one he was using at that moment. His hold upon the handle seemed to invest the steel of the blade with the sense of touch and an intelligent concern for the well-being of the plants. The hoe did not merely chop the weeds out from between the plants, but conveyed an exquisite attention to them, pulling and lifting and shifting the dirt about. Now and then he would lean down to raise the leaves of a weak plant and tuck fresh dirt gently in around it. He worked swiftly and yet with perfect care. The row as he left it behind him was groomed like a fine horse.
The man did not look up until he had finished the row. When finally he did look up, he looked first at the pony, not at Andy. He had turned the blade of the hoe upward. He held the handle like a walking stick in his left hand. He laid his right hand on the pony’s nose and made a gentle downward stroke.
“Whoa,” he said. He was a nice-looking fellow who wore his clothes neatly, as he had used the hoe.
When he looked up at Andy he was grinning. He was looking at Andy as he might have looked at writing hard to make out but interesting, also amusing. He reached under his hat to scratch his head. He had black hair that, young as he was, had begun to turn gray. He scratched his head slowly and then settled his hat again precisely as it had been before. He had never taken his eyes off Andy.
He said, “Do I know you?”
“No,” Andy said, “I’m Andy Catlett. I’m kin to people around here.”
“I’m Elton Penn,” Elton said. And he extended his hard right hand that was three or maybe four times as big as Andy’s.
They shook hands. It was clear to Andy that Elton had expected him to be Andy Catlett, just as he had expected Elton to be Elton.
Elton had now crooked his right forefinger around the headstall of the pony’s bridle just above the bit, and he was still grinning at Andy. He still had the studying look in his eyes.
He said, “I saw you shoot that cow.”
Andy did not think of anything to say. He only sat there on the pony, twiddling one of his shoes in a stirrup and grinning back.
When it was clear that Elton had said all he was going to say for the time being and was just going to stand there grinning and watching, Andy, who was getting embarrassed, said the next thing that came to his mind:
“They won’t let me have a rifle. You’ve got one, haven’t you? Maybe you’d take me hunting with you sometime. Maybe we could go to the woods down yonder along the creek. There’s some big trees down there. A lot of squirrels. Maybe you’d let me shoot one.”
“If you shot a cow with a rifle, it hurt,” Elton said.
Again Andy could think of nothing to say.
The door of the screened back porch opened and a slender young woman carrying a basket of wet clothes stepped out, heading for the clothesline, and the door banged shut behind her. She saw the two of them and stopped. Her hair was the color of a new copper penny, except that the sun shone all through it and made it seem to give light.
“Mary,” Elton said, raising his voice only a little and not looking away from Andy, “this is our neighbor, Mr. Catlett. Mr. Andy Catlett.”
Mary said, “Hello!” and she laughed. She laughed maybe because Elton was so clearly enjoying himself, and maybe because Andy was so unabashedly looking at her, getting his eyes full.
“You notice she’s got red hair?” Elton said. “You’ve got to be mighty careful around a redheaded woman.”
And Andy said, “Oh, I will!”
On the Beechum place Elton and Mary Penn came to a new beginning. This was a new beginning also in the lives of Andy and Henry Catlett. If the Penns had been interesting as new unknown people, they were far more interesting and more exciting too when they were known. The boys, so to speak, were kin to both the Catlett place and the Beechum place and had always had the run of both. But after the Penns had come, a new path was worn across the fields between the two places.
When the mood was on him, Elton was a comedian. He could be immensely amused at himself, at the things he invented to say, at the foibles and oddities of the boys, at the world’s plentitude of foibles and oddities. He was a good mimic of people’s expressions and gestures, their ways of talking and walking. As the boys followed him about at his work for their own amusement and for his company, they grew from merely trying to help to being actually helpful. Elton would hire them then and instruct them and pay them a wage. Working with him, they got to know him better, and Elton was a man there was plenty to be learned about.
As they discovered soon enough, you could not work day in and day out with Elton and not get crossways with him on some days. He could not hide his feelings or keep from speaking his mind. Free as his laughter was in his times of exuberance, when he was in a mood for condemnation his judgments were sudden and harsh. Andy would realize eventually that Elton’s condemnations were likely to involve self-condemnation. He could get into moods in which he was dark and self-obscured, his caustic pronouncements flying out in all directions, so that some of them fell inevitably upon himself. It would be as though that never-forgotten sentence of the Mountjoys, “He is nothing,” began to close upon him, and he strove for air and light in a panic dangerous to himself.
For of course Andy and Henry knew the story of Elton and Mary and the Mountjoys. They heard it from their grandma Catlett, from their parents, and, as time went on, from Elton and Mary. It was one of the legends of the boys’ childhood and growing up. It was a love story lived against the dark background of a hate story. It was a comprehensible story lived against an incomprehensible one. Elton and Mary were attractive people. Who, knowing them, could think it strange that they had fallen in love, or that they had married with no permission but their own? But who could understand her parents’ anger, so unrelenting for so long, so apparently final?
From the time Elton and Mary got married and moved to Cotman Ridge, their story was one of the stories of Port William. Everybody knew it. It became in the end a legend of the place, according to which Elton, to prove his worth and to fling success and defiance into the faces of the Mountjoys, worked himself to death. But this explanation of Elton’s too-early death Andy Catlett, among others, strongly doubted. It was too simple. There are always people who, taking for themselves every precaution against working themselves to death, are comforted to believe that somebody else has done so. Andy knew, on the contrary, that beyond the poverty that certainly drove Elton in the early years of his marriage, and beyond his undoubtable need to disprove the judgment of the Mountjoys, Elton was driven also by a passion for farming as great as that of Jack Beechum and Marce Catlett, both of whom lived long enough to become his teachers. Elton loved the use of his mind that revealed the possibilities within places and showed him the work that needed to be done. He loved offering himself to the work. He loved the knowledge of what one man’s skill and strength could do in a day. He farmed as a lover loves.
And so not all of Elton’s angers came from the old wound that was his legacy from the Mountjoys. They could come also in response to offenses against his devotion and his standards.
There would be a day when Elton and Andy would be in the young tobacco with their hoes. This was work that Elton liked. He accepted, was even beyond, its difficulty. To Andy it was a hardship always, but on some days more than others. It made large and clear the differences between the two of them. In Elton’s mind this job, which he considered “pretty work” in itself, took a comeliness and a larger sense from the patterns of the farm and the year’s work into which it fitted. To Andy, who still was inclined to understand work only in relation to himself, it fitted no pattern and so was all the more a trial. Elton, besides, was in the prime of his strength, whereas Andy, who was still growing, was weedy, dreamy, and awkward, not to mention slow—“barely able to stand up by himself,” as Elton had the delicacy not to say until years later, when Andy himself could think it was funny.
It was the summer of 1949, and Andy was a few weeks shy of fifteen. Often, when just the two of them were at work, Elton would position himself between his own row and Andy’s. From time to time he would work a little in Andy’s row, so that Andy could keep up and they could talk. Sometimes the talk would help, and for Andy his misery would take on an overlay of pleasure.
But that day, though Elton was helping him along, they were not talking. The weather was hot and humid, without a breeze. Elton had simply remarked, with a gesture at the sun, “Old Hannah’s putting it on us today, ain’t she?” and had gone ahead, apparently not minding. But Andy was stopping from time to time to pull out his bandanna and wipe the sweat from his face, and from time to time he expelled his breath in a sigh.
If he had been paying attention, he could have told by looking that Elton was running out of patience. Andy’s sweat-wiping and sighing were putting forth an opinion with which Elton did not agree. But Andy was not paying attention, at least not to Elton. He was paying attention to how hot and weary he was and how much he would like to be somewhere else.
Elton worked fast and accurately. He never missed a weed and he never cut off a tobacco plant. He worked with a steady rhythm and forward motion. Andy, faltering along, would occasionally snip off a plant, as on that day he finally did. Through the hoe handle he felt the little resistance of the stem as he cut through it. That did get his attention, and he was instantly aware that Elton was watching. He knew instantly also the track that Elton’s mind was on. Elton was thinking that Andy was working poorly because he could afford to do so, because somebody else would pay for his mistakes. Elton, when he was Andy’s age, had paid for his mistakes himself, and this was another difference between them.
“I’m sorry,” Andy said.
And Elton said, “Too late.”
With Elton, Andy was always ready to accept blame and apologize, and often enough Elton would say, “Don’t worry about it,” or “Well, it’s all right,” or, at worst, “I reckon you couldn’t help it.”
But Elton was not always so forgiving. He could also see, and at times he could see only, that all apologies come too late, and he would require Andy to see, likewise, that apologies do not undo mistakes and you can’t improve bad work by being sorry for it.
Andy did not look back at Elton. He went on working, but he could feel Elton watching him.
Elton said, “It might help if you’d think about what you’re doing. What do you charge for the use of your mind?”
When that failed to provoke a reply, Elton said, “And take hold of your hoe the right way. It’s not a broom!”
And then Andy, already fuming with self-justification, got mad. He said, “I reckon the damn world depends on how I hold a damn hoe!”
Elton gave Andy a look then that he seemed to poke at him to make sure it went all the way. He said, “Not just you.”
From then until quitting time, Andy saw nothing of Elton but his back.
There were occasionally and inevitably days like that one, days when discord built to a momentum that could be checked only by the day’s end. But there were days also that were exceptional for their goodness, when Elton and the Catlett boys, either or both, worked together in sympathy and harmony that were joyous.
The boys’ grandpa Catlett died in 1946 and Old Jack in 1952. Elton had studied them closely in their latter days, just as he continued to study Wheeler. He had thought long about their devotions and their ways. He would quote them in their own voices at appropriate times by way of instruction or correction to the boys. He seemed to call the absent into presence and they spoke through him.
It would be Marce Catlett: “Mind what you’re doing, baby.” Or: “Ay God, I know what a man can do in a day.”
It would be Old Jack: “If you’re going to talk to me, you’ll have to walk.” Or: “Ready hell! I been ready!”
Or it would be Wheeler: “Put ’em to work! Make ’em do it right!” Or: “Honey, wait a minute. Hold on a minute.”
Much of the knowledge of their elders passed to the boys through Elton. Sometimes it seemed that a current of love traveled among them and joined them to one another, to those who were absent, to the old times, to the land and its creatures.
In the Penns’ second year on the Beechum place, Elton bought a large secondhand tractor. In their fourth year, he bought a small new one. Elton’s horses continued to be used, by him or the Catlett boys, for the lighter jobs or as an “extra tractor,” until Elton pensioned them off. He kept them, out of loyalty and gratitude, until they died. From about 1949, Elton cropped on the Catlett place as well as the Beechum place. For a while after he bought the big tractor, tractors being still rare in that country, he did custom work for neighbors. Andy, staying at the Catlett place, would sometimes wake in the night and hear Elton’s tractor off in the distance still at work.
After Old Jack died, bequeathing to Elton a sum meant to be a down payment on the farm, and to Wheeler Catlett a most urgent plea—“See the boy has his place”—Elton and Mary, by Wheeler’s intervention and help, did buy the Beechum place in the late winter of 1953. They bought it at what Elton thought was too high a price. But then, his own boss at last, and doing better economically than he had feared he would do, Elton gradually shaped the place to his own vision of it. He rebuilt the fences. He repaired the old buildings and built new ones. He and Mary, working on one room at a time, made the old house a comfort and a pleasure according to their needs. In 1958 they bought a second farm, an adjoining place long neglected and rundown.
As Elton went about his work day after day and year after year, the Beechum place came to a new order and beauty around him. After they bought the second farm, it too came to life and throve. Doing their own work, each helping at the other’s work, Elton and Mary were making a life together, and lives for each other. Together they were coming substantially into existence, Mary from her death to all she had known and been before their marriage, Elton from the nothing her parents had judged him to be. They were making a success, even a triumph.
This accomplishment of the Penns stood among the other good things of the early life of Andy Catlett like an illuminated page. He had seen firsthand what they had done and how they had done it. They had taken what had been given them and what had been available in the time and place, and they had brought it to abundance and the luster of a new thing.
After they had come to the Beechum place and had got their feet under them, Mary and Elton had two children, first a daughter, Martha, and then a son, Jack, named for their old benefactor. As Andy and Henry Catlett grew up, they grew into friendship with Martha and Jack Penn, whom they played with and teased and helped to look after when they were small children, and whom they loved and bore in mind after Martha had become a schoolteacher in Cincinnati and after Jack too, having farmed for a few years following Elton’s death, had gone away.
The story of Mary and Elton Penn was included in the story of Port William, which was included in the stories first of the Depression and then of the War, and then of the mechanization of farming and the disintegration of country life that began almost immediately at the end of the War. The old life of home farms and frugality and neighborhood and care-taking held together until the end of the War because it had to, there being until then no alternative. After the War, with the application of war machinery and chemicals and military-industrial thinking to agriculture, farming began to give way to an economy that was alien to it.
Andy would come to think of the fifteen or so years immediately following the War, which were the crucial years of the Penns’ rising into prosperity, as a time unique in the stresses and contradictions that bore upon it. It was a temporary suspension or standoff between the last supports of the old agrarian economy and the forces, eventually dominant, of the economy of industrialism. It was a time when the farmers’ self-sustaining household economies were still in place, when prices were generally good, and when for those reasons, though only for a little while, industrial equipment could serve at a reasonable cost the effort of a young farmer such as Elton.
The Penns’ story, then, was also that of the gathering up of a small, brief coherence within a larger, longer story of disconnection and incoherence. Even as Elton and Mary were making themselves whole, in their marriage and in their place, Port William and its neighborhood were coming increasingly into the story of cheap fuel, speed, and the fire-driven machinery of disintegration. By the time of Elton’s death in 1974, the balance had tilted against such a life as he had aspired to and lived. The economy of industry had prevailed. The land and the people who did the land’s work were to be used, and used up, by the measures of mechanical efficiency and corporate profit. Greed was replacing thrift as an economic virtue. All was to be taken, nothing given back. In his last years, Elton saw that this was happening, and he raged against it. It was again a reduction to nothing, this time not just for him, but for him and his kind. When he died, the world as he had known it, and for a while had helped to make it, was ending.
As time is reckoned in the modern age, Elton’s death is already a long time ago. The Penns’ kind and their kind of life are nearly gone from the Port William neighborhood and from the whole country. As Andy Catlett looked back on it, their story, in addition to all else it was, came to seem to him a sort of lens. When he looked backward through it, he could see the lives and ways of Marce Catlett, Jack Beechum and forebears dead before he was born. Looking the other way, he saw farmers never out of debt, working at night and on Sunday to stay even, and always fewer of them as they died or gave up or failed to meet their payments and were sold out. After they were gone, there were always fewer to remember them. It is hard to remember one world while living in another.
In the Port William neighborhood as elsewhere, there would remain a few throwbacks, dissenters, oddities, who would be rememberers, conscientiously loyal to an old membership. Andy Catlett was one of these. The story of Elton and Mary Penn survived in his memory and mind, in the fabric of his life, and in his conversations with his family and a few neighbors. As the story receded into the past and the light of more and more days fell upon it, it changed and grew larger and clearer in its aspects and in Andy’s understanding. But always unchanged in its background were the dimensionless figures of Mary’s parents, the old Mountjoys, whom Andy never knew and rarely had even seen.
Andy had now lived longer than Elton and Mary. In his aging thoughts of them, he saw how young they were when their story began. They had been a boy and a girl, not long from childhood. He saw that what they did was rash enough, a bad surprise, surely, to her parents, to whom it would have been a bad enough surprise if Elton had been heir to a fortune. But he saw too, as he had always seen, that when the marriage was made, it was as finally made as any marriage. Elton and Mary would not have submitted to its undoing any more than they had submitted to the judgment that preceded it.
Because he had been young himself, Andy understood how the marriage could have come to be. Because he had known Elton and Mary, he understood the finality of what they had done. Because he had children and grandchildren of his own, he understood Mary’s parents’ grief and disapproval. What he could not understand, and could not imagine, was the finality of their rejection of their daughter, which had been exactly as final as the marriage: “until death.”
Over all the accumulating years, and in spite of the distance that separated them, Andy’s old friendship with the Penns’ daughter Martha was still intact. They would sometimes meet and talk when Andy would happen to be in Cincinnati, or Martha would stop to see him on one of her visits to her parents’ graves in Port William. Now and again one of them would telephone the other, and they would talk a long time, exchanging news, and always speaking of the days they had known in common.
One night, seventy years after her parents were married, Martha and Andy were talking, as often before, of the circumstances of that marriage, of the Mountjoys and their long resolve. And then Martha told him something he had not known.
“After I moved up here,” she said, “my grandmother tried to get in touch with me. She called my school and left her number. I never called her back.”
Andy was not surprised that Martha had not returned the call. They were grandmother and granddaughter, but also they were strangers. Supposing that Martha had decided to call the old woman back or even write to her, what could she have said? Did our language afford the possibility of circumventing the thirty years of silence by which the Mountjoys had kept to their decree that Mary Penn was dead to them and that Elton was nothing? Or supposing that, by some remarkable inspiration, Martha had thought of some cordiality with which to reply, would not that cordiality have been in effect a betrayal, a treason against her parents? Could any slightest acknowledgement of her granddaughterhood have surmounted the long dishonor paid out year after year to her mother’s daughterhood? Or, supposing that Martha had returned the call, what could the old woman have said to her? What language known to us might have encompassed a wrong so old, an atonement so long delayed, to speak to a young stranger an acceptable acknowledgement of kinship?
And yet old Mrs. Mountjoy, by that phone call of years ago, had conveyed at last to Andy a possibility he had not thought of before: Suppose she was sorry.
That thought could not have borne heavily upon Martha, who had dismissed it by an instinct undoubtedly proper, who was even under obligation to do so. But upon Andy, who had been a participant in the story but by then was merely a witness to what he had known and what he now knew, it fell with a palpable weight.
Suppose she was sorry.
On that night of his conversation with Martha, Andy may have been more than usually vulnerable to such a thought. He was, for one thing, weak and in discomfort from an illness. For another, the great industrial empire to which he and his family perhaps helplessly belonged, was again at war, imposing its will by the deaths of helpless old people, women, and children, and by the torture of prisoners. The imperial economy, based upon nothing but the overconfidence of the greedy and the gullibility of victims, was disintegrating, justly, but with unjust consequences to the misled and the helpless. It was this gigantic economy, incorporating gigantic oblivion and gigantic failure, that had laid waste the world that Marce Catlett and Jack Beechum and Elton Penn had stood for and hoped for, the world that they had offered to Andy’s heart and his thoughts half a century and more ago, and that he had accepted. After night had fallen the suffering of the time and the world had drawn close to Andy, and his illness and dejection seemed to him merely a fit response.
And now the thought that, years too late, old Mrs. Mountjoy had been sorry, had repented of the hurt she had given and wished to take it back, and that her old husband also may have suffered the same too-late sorrow—that thought came to Andy as a command he could not refuse, for he had in the same instant obeyed it. He had begun to suppose. Until that moment such a possibility had been hidden from him in his assumption that to her death Mrs. Mountjoy had been steadfast in her anger and her refusal. Until then she had been to him a wicked old woman in a tale learned in childhood. And now suddenly she was removed from the category of legend and had become, in his imagination, only human, a fellow sufferer with Mary her disclaimed child and with Elton her declared enemy. And all too late. “Too late,” Andy could again hear Elton saying with the blunt finality of the world’s mere truth.
As he sat on in the silence after he had hung up the phone, it seemed to Andy that the floor of creation had opened beneath him, and he had dropped into a limitlessness of heartache: of second thoughts too late, of the hopelessness of undoing what had been done, of some forlorn hope, even, that could not be undone by despair or numbed by time.
Andy had often proposed to himself that joy, the joy of love or beauty or of work, could so abound in this world that it would overflow all of this world’s mortal vessels, but that night he was thinking of sorrow. He was suddenly filled with the apprehension of hurt and sorrow that might overflow the capacity of the world, let alone that of a mere life. That there had been an immeasurable joy in the story of Mary and Elton Penn he had long known. But now its suffering also had been made present to him in a fullness he knew was beyond the reach of his mind. He would never know, never imagine, either all its suffering or the extent to which its suffering had been unnecessary.
It seemed to him almost a proof of immortality that nothing mortal could contain all its sorrow. He felt the presence of an unknowable number by which his own incomprehension might be multiplied, until it would have the magnitude even of the Void itself. He thought, as we all have been taught to think, of our half-lit world, a speck hardly visible, hardly noticeable, among scattered lights in the black well in which it spins. If all its sorrow could somehow be voiced, somehow heard, what an immensity the sound of it would have!
In the silent, shadowy room in the great night he was thinking—and his thought was a confession of need, it was a prayer—of heavenly pity, heavenly forgiveness.